It’s 7pm. Most people I know are at home, seeing friends or enjoying time with family. I’m sat in front of an eyetracker, debugging a script that won’t work in the way that it is needed to. For the nth time, I hit a button that sets in motion the compiling of my code. I cross my fingers. Not this time, I think to myself, as the screen becomes populated with familiar error messages. But, progress! It’s now 10pm. People are finishing the day off, getting ready for bed. I’m sat reading a journal article while, downstairs, my partner has fallen asleep waiting for me. It is now 9am, and in front of me is a familiar sight, the eyetracker. After a little tweaking, the compile button is pushed and… Success! But something isn’t quite right. The world around me begins to melt, fading to black, and I wake up to my girlfriend tapping me, suggesting we should get some sleep. I don’t disagree.
Dazed and confused, but optimistic for the coming day, I head through to the bedroom and try to drift off. Sleep doesn’t always come so easily, but being primed already by a few Z’s dozing away isn’t so difficult. The last thoughts to drift into my head before slumber are ones of things that could’ve happened: I could have been an astronaut. Maybe even a pilot. Hell, I could’ve been a musician – but alas, I am a scientist-in-training. A PhD student. Someone that does 99% of the work that a person with a PhD does, but for 99% less money. My partner abandoned the PhD track upon finishing her masters, and there are times (occurring more often than one would probably like to own up to) when I think I should have too.
Doing a PhD means being 100% dedicated, 100% of the time, to your field of study. It means missing out on time spent with friends and family, because you are always in the lab, always reading, always doing something related to the project. It means being constantly on the back foot, fatigued and reactive – even when a plan exists and it is approached proactively. It means strained relationships because you simply don’t have time to spend on things that aren’t related to your work. It means exhausting yourself day in, day out, all in the name of just finishing the next piece of work. Everything you do is built around trying to succeed, and in succeeding often other areas have to be neglected.
With each passing day, I feel older. Stress can reduce life expectancy, which is like accelerated ageing, so the reasoning here is clear. I look around the lab and see others undoubtably thinking the same things as me, but in my head they’re all far ahead, and far superior. They just seem to keep working, despite uncertanties and hesitations. But to conclude here is to miss the point of a PhD. It is a lonely endeavour not by design, but by nature of the work carried out. When an experiment is created, it is done in a way that controls every minute detail. Just as the study has to be controlled, so does the mind of the person designing it. A PhD, then, isn’t just a case of getting a qualification; it is a case of quietting the mind, of ignoring negativity, of becoming more than emotion. The anxieties and insecurities which burdens you at the start of a project gives way, eventually, to grit and determination – at least, this happens most of the time. Unfortunately, it’s a well known fact that not everyone makes it through a PhD.
It’s actually morning, now. I wake around 5:30, throw on some clothes and get out of the house for a run. The morning routine has me running away, out of the city and through fields. Making good time, I crest a hill just as the sun rises in the distance. I reflect a little on the thoughts of yesterday; of moments missed, holidays skipped, and of the lowly state of my bank account, containing only a fraction of the money earned by other graduates with master’s degrees. I wondered whether or not it was worth it. Often, the answer is that I just don’t know if it is. Hindsight is a lovely thing because it is exactly that: the ability to examine the past with the wisdom held in the present. It is not possible to judge whether the PhD will, in the end, be good or not. Whether it will be worth the time and effort invested. But, unlike most times this question crops up, I reached a realisation today. My entire life, so far, has been dedicated to reaching this moment. From work to pleasure, everything has been aimed towards staying inside the ivory tower. 22 of my (near-)25 years have been spent learning academically. And so here I will remain, bearing the discomfort and pushing ever forwards.
Working on a PhD means creating a unique foundation for expression. It is more than an intellectual pursuit, and will certainly change you as an individual. The constant challenge comes from an inner disharmony, forcing you to fight your own mind and body. The greatest challenge is, ironically, the thing with which we have most control over: yourself. Mental faculties change and alter on a daily basis: some days will allow for greater concentration than others, and the desire to do something certainly tends to come and go. It is only by sticking with the process, by being present in the here and now, by telling yourself that, actually, you really can do it, that we do. Because, in a PhD we face demons regularly. We face ourselves. And by facing these fears, developing ways of thinking, and calling upon these strengths, we are pushing on the boundaries of knowledge. One day, the boundary gives way. While the award for this is receipt of a PhD, what we’ve really done is made a dream a reality.